VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. — The command team at Vance Air Force Base gained a new vice wing commander recently with the addition of Col. Jay Johnson.
Johnson checked in to his new position at Vance on Dec. 27. As vice commander of the 71st Flying Training Wing, Johnson serves as the second-in-command at the base under Col. Corey Simmons.
Originally from Fremont, Calif., in the San Francisco Bay area, Johnson credits the influence of his grandfather, Navy Chief Petty Officer Arthur Lockwood, in leading him to a life in the military.
Johnson enrolled at San Francisco State University and completed Air Force ROTC through a crosstown agreement with University of California, Berkley, and was commissioned in the Air Force in 1999.
Undergraduate Pilot Training at Columbus Air Force Base, Miss., followed, then a tour as a first assignment instructor pilot in the T-1. It was while serving together as FAIPs at Columbus that Johnson and Simmons first met, at the beginnings of careers that would lead them both to Vance.
After his FAIP tour, Johnson returned to California to fly the KC-10 tanker at Travis Air Force Base. Throughout his 20-year career, Johnson has spent more than eight years at Travis, a relatively short drive from his boyhood home.
“I joined the Air Force to see the world, and they sent me to Mississippi and then back to California, an hour and a half from where I grew up,” Johnson said with a laugh.
After three years in the KC-10 Johnson went to the then-new Phoenix Mobility Program, an Air Mobility Command initiative to pull together specialists from different areas into a Contingency Response Wing that could create forward operating airfields by repurposing existing runways or by creating dirt strips on undeveloped land.
That work took Johnson to Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, in 2009, where he worked alongside Special Operations personnel in developing an existing airfield into an Air Mobility Command site to deliver armored vehicles into the northern part of the country.
A legislative fellowship in Washington, D.C., and time as a staff officer for the Joint Chiefs of Staff followed, then command of the 921st Contingency Response Squadron at Travis AFB.
After attending the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., in 2016-17, Johnson went back to the Pentagon to serve on the staff of the Secretary of the Air Force, where he remained until reporting as the vice wing commander at Vance in December.
Johnson and his wife, Kristen, a retired Air Force critical care air transport nurse, have three children: Sydney, 20, a junior at Syracuse University; Logan, 17, a junior in high school; and Carter, 6, who is enrolled at Eisenhower Elementary School.
Johnson said he and his family have been warmly welcomed by the Enid community.
“The change from Washington, D.C., to here has been a huge difference, but we love it,” Johnson said. “The welcome from the town and the base has been fantastic. I have not been a part of a relationship where the town supports the base like they do here. Everyone I have run into, both on and off base, has been fantastic.”
In his role as vice wing commander, Johnson said he’ll be doing “a little bit of everything.”
“It’s really anything Col. Simmons needs me to do,” Johnson said. “I can help the wing commander spread his mission intent down to the last airman on base, and it also works the other way, so they can bring their ideas to me.”
While many people think of the military as a strictly top-down leadership model, Johnson said Team Vance and the Air Force as a whole run on the ingenuity of “young, innovative critical thinkers,” from all levels of the chain of command, filtering their ideas upwards. He helps collect, screen and refine those ideas before they’re pitched to Col. Simmons, Johnson said.
“I like being that person who can help people think through ideas, and make sure we’re using the boss’s time wisely and making good decisions for the base and the community,” Johnson said.
That reliance on ideas coming up from all levels of the rank structure has developed out of necessity, Johnson said, as the Air Force has become more dependent on rapidly changing technology.
“When I was coming up as a young officer, 19th Air Force would have told us ‘You will do this,’” he said. “Now, 19th Air Force comes to us and says ‘We need your help on this.’ And that extends down to the last airman on the base.”
Johnson said he’s committed to looking for areas of possible improvement during his approximately two year tour at Vance.
“The way I was raised was to leave things better than you found them,” he said. “That’s a little harder here, because everything’s already firing on all cylinders.”
One of his areas of focus will be on opening lines of communication with other training commands to share innovation.
“All these things we’re doing well here at Vance Air Force Base, we want to make sure we’re sharing those ideas with the other bases in Air Education and Training Command,” Johnson said.
For now, as he settles into his new job, Johnson said he’s enjoying being back in the environment where he and Simmons started their careers.
“When you wake up in the morning and you enjoy coming to work, it makes it easy,” Johnson said. “For a 43 year-old guy to get to come to work and be around a lot of student pilots and all their energy, is awesome.”